A Chance for the U.N. to Live up to Its Charter

JONATHAN POWER

November 01, 1991|By JONATHAN POWER

LUND, SWEDEN. — Lund, Sweden -- The appointment of the new secretary general of the United Nations is imminent, and with it, we should hope, a new period of U.N. activism that will make the world body do what its charter members in 1945 intended it to do -- be the force which intervenes whenever and wherever there is a threat to peace.

The U.N. Charter was an immense creation of the intellectual imagination, an outcome of the peculiar horrors of World War II that stretched the minds of mankind. Tragically, for most of the post-war era, much of the charter has remained dormant, frozen in unanimated suspension by the nullifying rivalries of the Cold War.

Only two times in its history has the U.N. used the ''enforcement'' procedures of the charter. The first was the Korean War in 1950, when the Security Council (with the Soviets absenting themselves on the grounds that China was not allowed to be present) voted to repulse North Korean attacks on South Korea, and authorized the U.S. to lead a unified military command. Throughout the war, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the commander, acted totally independently of the Security Council.

The second was earlier this year, when the Security Council authorized member states ''to use all necessary means'' to restore sovereignty to Kuwait. This time no unified command was established, and the use of the U.N. flag was not permitted. An ad hoc coalition, under the self-appointed leadership of the United States, did the job of driving Iraq out of Kuwait.

Neither the Korean War nor the Persian Gulf War followed the intentions of the charter, which are quite clear -- enforcement must be by means of a U.N. command, appointed by the secretary general, under the direction of the Security Council, and assisted by the Military Staff Committee.

The peculiarities of Korea and the fact that no further enforcement proceedings occurred until 1991 may be blamed on the Cold War. But the hijacking of the U.N. by the U.S. for the fight against Saddam Hussein can only be blamed on the lack of leadership of the present secretary general, Javier Perez de Cuellar, and the ineptitude of the general membership, who were still digesting the implications of the end of the Soviet-American rivalry without having considered what should replace it. Amazingly, during the whole period of the Iraq-Kuwait crisis, the command of the U.N.-mandated force was never once discussed by the Security Council.

With a new secretary general almost in place, the time for clear thinking has arrived. The U.N. needs to be authoritatively led with a careful but forceful interpretation of the provisions of the charter.

The Swede, Dag Hammarskjold, whose signal contribution as secretary general becomes more apparent as time goes by, has in fact bequeathed to the new incumbent the framework of the system needed. It is what the U.N. calls ''peace-keeping.'' Peace-keeping was Hammarskjold's inspired interpretation of Chapter Six of the Charter, which concerns mediation and conciliation, as opposed to the enforcement provisions of Chapter Seven. He thought of peace-keeping as police work, with soldiers lightly armed for self-defense only; enforcement meant military power with a fully fledged army, navy and air force.

Peace-keepers were used first in the Suez crisis in 1956 to assure the withdrawal of French, British and Israeli forces from Egypt. Since then, they've been used in a wide variety of situations -- maintaining stability in south Lebanon, monitoring elections in Namibia and Haiti and disarming insurgents in Nicaragua. Following last week's Cambodian peace treaty, they are being sent to police the cease-fire, disarm the combatants and supervise the government and the holding of elections. Today a report is published by the thoughtful Swedish organization, the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, that persuasively advocates the immediate dispatch of U.N. peace-keepers to Yugoslavia.

Hammarskjold's peace-keepers, while giving the U.N. some degree of life during the days when enforcement action was blocked by the Cold War, made one other important contribution. They showed how a U.N. command system can work in practice. Troop contingents provided by member states serve under their national officers. But they receive orders from the overall force commander, who reports to the secretary general who appointed him. The secretary general reports to the Security Council and obtains its guidance and concurrence.

If the United Nations is going to become a credible institution of the post-Cold War age, competent to repel aggression and restore international peace, with the acquiescence and support of its membership, this is how it has to go.

No nation, or even a partnership of two or three powerful nations, is going to be able -- or, I suspect, be allowed -- in a world free of superpower polarization, to assume the mantle of keeping the peace. The U.N. now has to seize its moment and become the accepted mechanism for resolving conflicts and righting wrongs.

It's all in the charter. The daunting and urgent task of the new secretary general is to bring it to life.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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